One of the most hotly debated questions Christians have asked over the years is “Could Jesus have sinned?” As usual, believers have had different thoughts, but the answer is very important.
One school of thought says Jesus could not have sinned because he was God. Jesus had one nature and one will. He could not have sinned because God cannot sin. These Christians believe that saying Jesus could have sinned doesn’t take his deity – his God-ness – seriously.
They point to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, recorded in Matthew 4.1-11, as proof that he could not sin. They reason that if Jesus could have given in to temptation in the wilderness, then it would have been God tempting him, because it was the Holy Spirit who led him there. Because God does not tempt anyone (James 1.13), there must not have been a possibility of Jesus sinning or God would be made a tempter.
This is precisely the backward kind of reasoning that gets us in so much trouble. We start with what we want to believe and find a verse to back it up – without letting the rest of Scripture speak to the issue.
We begin with a truth about God (God can’t sin), and apply it to Jesus, pulling in a Scripture that supports our thinking (James 1.13). In the process, however, we rob Jesus of one of the very things that makes him such a powerful Savior – that he faced exactly the same challenges we face, yet without sin (Hebrews 4.15).
As “conservatives,” we place a high value on Jesus’ deity because so many deny he was God. We are prone, however, to make the opposite mistake of not taking his humanity seriously.
Jesus was fully God and fully man. We compromise neither point, even though it creates a paradox that our limited minds can’t resolve. We must be true to both, even if the paradox makes us uncomfortable. Compromising his humanity is as big a mistake as denying his deity.
Take, for example, the confused reasoning about Jesus in the wilderness that I mentioned above. Just because the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted does not mean God tempted him. The passage plainly says the devil tempted him.
Do you remember another Bible story about God allowing someone to be severely tested? God allowed Satan to afflict Job, but no one concludes that God therefore did the afflicting. Likewise, it makes no sense to say that God tempted Jesus just because God led him into the wilderness to face the Tempter.
As for the impossibility of Jesus’ sinning, how was it temptation that he faced if it didn’t include the real possibility of making the wrong choice? How can any of us possibly identify with a Savior whose “temptation” didn’t include the possibility of sin? How would Jesus’ victory over that kind of “temptation” mean anything for me? And why would the Scripture say Jesus was tempted in the wilderness if, in fact, he wasn’t really tempted?
Some say God led Jesus into the wilderness to prove he couldn’t sin. The glorious truth is that God led Jesus into the wilderness to prove he wouldn’t sin! Standing face to face with the devil, Jesus resisted his offers – and proved that he was indeed the Son of God as well as the Son of Man. He proved he was qualified as Savior and Redeemer because he could have sinned and chose not to!
Another injustice to Jesus’ humanity is saying that Jesus had one nature (divine) and one will (God’s) and could not have sinned because he was God.
Have you never read Matthew’s account (26.36-46) of Jesus praying in Gethsemane just before Judas and the mob came to arrest him? Do you remember that Jesus agonized before the Father, asking him to “let this cup pass from me, yet not as I will, but as you will”? How could he pray such a prayer if he had only one will and it was identical with the Father’s?
The whole point of Matthew’s story is that Jesus faced the horror of death on a cross and chose to go through it. No one took his life from him; he laid it down by his own choice (John 10.18). That was the point Jesus made that night when the mob came after him and Jesus said he could have 12 legions of angels to come rescue him if only he asked the Father to send them (Matthew 26:53). But he chose not to call for them!
Part of the power of the crucifixion is that Jesus stayed at Gethsemane and waited for the mob to come when he could have slipped away to Galilee under the cover of darkness. He could have chosen his own will, instead of God’s will. But he chose God’s will and endured the agony of the cross so he could complete the faith he had begun for us! (Hebrews 12:2)
The only sense in which you can say Jesus could not have sinned is that choosing his human will over God’s will would have been a betrayal of who he was as Christ. He could not choose sin and still be who he was in God’s plan for redemption.
Now that idea speaks to me in my humanity, because I have to make choices too. When I choose sin (my will) over God’s will, I betray who I am in Christ. 1 John 3.9 says the child of God “cannot sin because he is born of God.” Does that mean it’s impossible for a Christian to make a bad choice? Of course not! It means that we cannot be children of God and continually make sinful choices.
It’s impossible for you to walk both God’s path and your own. Yes, you can sin, but you can’t sin if you want to be what God intends you to be. You won’t sin if you want to be true to who you are in Christ.
That’s true for you. It also was true for Jesus.
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